Ladies and Soldiers Both: Creating Social Space for Women in the US Armed Forces*

*I gave this presentation at the 2022 Annual Meeting for the Society of Military History in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 30, 2022. The text is more formal than the actual presentation 

          This paper is the first step in my next major project. For today’s purposes, I have considered recruiting brochures from the USMC published in the early 1960s. I am currently considering what the end point of the project should be. I am leaning toward ending it when the military was fully gender integrated in the 1950s, though I am also considering the beginning of the All-Volunteer Force as my end point. I also have brochures published in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  As to why I’m working with USMC only at this point – Covid-19. Many of the archives I want to visit have only recently reopened, so I am working with what I have. I hope to be in the archives in the fall but given how many times I’ve said that over the last 2 years, I’m not holding my breath.

            These brochures offer a unique insight into contemporaneous changes in gender in the military. I have been calling it military femininity – a counterpoint, or perhaps counterbalance, to military masculinity. Military service has long been a route to manhood in the US – a point made explicit in a Navy recruiting poster for men in World War II titled “Healthy Bodies, Active Minds.” The poster showed before and after pictures of enrollees, highlighting their increased weight and muscle mass, as well as their improved posture. The poster text began with the explicit claim that “Men build the NAVY…the NAVY builds Men!”[1] With the arrival of women, the military could not sell itself as a man-making institution without complication. After the war, the impetus to maintain the women’s auxiliaries and later to fully integrate all genders into the military forced a reckoning I am not sure anyone was prepared for.

Manhood is something to be achieved, to be earned through appropriate strenuous activity. Military service fills this purpose, and by World War II, participation was becoming the key to successful military service. Womanhood is something to be protected and preserved – women are granted womanhood by reaching adulthood, rather than through any actions of their own. Military service would actually harm womanhood if it remained only a man-making institution.

I believe that the rhetoric changes in the mid-20th century to making citizens and “true” or “real” Americans instead of making men. Making citizens or making “real” Americans is not necessarily tied to gender, even though the military’s method of making citizens or “real” Americans was still based in earlier, single-gendered military structures and traditions. Recruiting material focuses on the benefits, as always, but over the course of a few decades, dating and marriage rules become less prominent in the recruiting material. World War II materials discussed marriage rules – who could the women date, what married women would be accepted, what happened if a service member married – because these were significant issues for women considering enrollment.

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